Midnight Oil take a bow at Spark Arena on 3 September during their farewell tour. Photo: RNZ / Nik Dirga
Comment – There’s a great book about ground-breaking ‘80s punk bands called Our Band Could Be Your Life.
For me, Midnight Oil is one of those bands.
As the Aussie enviro-rockers shook up a nearly full Spark Arena last night on the Auckland stop of their farewell tour, I thought a lot about how the band has been part of the soundtrack of my life for more than 30 years, and helped shape how I think about the world.
They exploded out of Australia’s pub rock scene to become surprise global superstars with hits like Beds are Burning and Dreamworld before breaking up in 2002. They reformed in 2016 and are now on the Aotearoa leg of their farewell tour. While they plan to keep making music, this is it for the touring.
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The first time I saw Midnight Oil live I was just 18 years old, a small-town California kid, who was listening to their breakthrough album Diesel and Dust an awful lot.
Most of the music I listened to at the time was about love and sex and being sad. Midnight Oil were a different flavour of music.
Midnight Oil opened my eyes to those without voices and those with too much power. They didn’t sing love songs. They were singing about indigenous rights, environmental degradation and nuclear disarmament and while they were stalwart and powerful, they never felt preachy. They were persuasive about things that mattered.
Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil at Spark Arena on 3 September. Photo: RNZ / Nik Dirga
The band are all now in their 60s, and at the end of a long gruelling global tour, but despite frontman Peter Garrett obviously battling a bit of a cold, Midnight Oil still summoned up all the power and the passion of their heyday at Spark Arena on a rainy Saturday night.
Bald and nearly two metres tall, Garrett is like a bolt of lightning on stage, loose-limbed, frantically dancing. Despite being almost 70, he still has the energy of a man decades younger.
They mixed their ’80s and ’90s hits with work from their strong new album Resist, with songs like Nobody’s Child and The Barka-Darling River that feel just as anthemic as ever. “Who left the bag of idiots open? Who drank the bottle of bad ideas?,” Garrett sings in River, a message that feels pretty on point in 2022.
They also paid tribute to their late New Zealander bandmate and bass player, Bones Hillman, who died in 2020 and made the band promise to carry on before his death.
Garrett is never shy about taking on sacred cows – literally, with a broadside against dairy company Fonterra urging them to work harder to combat climate change and lower emissions.
When I discovered Midnight Oil, I knew nothing about Aboriginal culture, about the legacy of the stolen generations (Dead Heart), the last native Tasmanians (Truganini) or ailing workers at asbestos mines (Blue Sky Mining). Midnight Oil made a self-centred teenager think a little more about the wider world.
At university, I joined and for a while helped run the campus environmental club in deep, deep red Mississippi, where we helped introduce recycling to the campus for the very first time. I listened to a heck of a lot of Midnight Oil to inspire me.
Midnight Oil performs during their farewell tour 3 September at Spark Arena. Photo: RNZ / Nik Dirga
Now, I’m a middle-aged bloke and seeing them for the final time was like a shot of adrenaline to the conscience.
I admit, sometimes I get down, realising that the same environmental fears and concerns Midnight Oil were singing about 35 years ago are still plaguing us today. Has anything changed?
We’re having wetter and warmer winters and on the other side of the world heat waves are getting worse and worse. But Garrett reminded us of that famous quote that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
I’d like to think so. The youth of today are far more engaged and concerned about climate change than my generation managed to be, and maybe there’s still a chance to right the ship.
Midnight Oil has always performed with a focused and righteous anger, rather than the flailing, sputtering outrage that seems to be everywhere online these days. They sing fierce, pointed songs, but even at their sternest it’s always felt to me like the Oils balanced that out with a core of compassion.
Think about their famous choruses – “How can we sleep while our beds are burning,” “Who’s going to save me,” “We carry in our hearts the true country / and that cannot be stolen.” The essential message of Midnight Oil is hope.
The band may be leaving the road, but that oil is still burning bright as they blaze through Aotearoa one final time.